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This spring, Mets pitcher Taijuan Walker quietly made a small piece of history as the first MLB player to make and sell an NFT.
If that sentence doesn’t make sense to you, you’re not alone. The arena that Walker has entered is increasingly popular in the art and sports worlds, but still unknown to many in the general public. For him, NFTs represent an opportunity to express his visual creativity, raise money for worthy causes and pursue extra income.
“I think the more people learn about it -- it’s so new -- it’s going to blow up, and it’s going to be the future,” Walker tells SNY.
“You’re going to see a lot more baseball players, a lot more football players, soccer players [in the NFT space]. You’ll get to really see the artistic side of athletes, their creative side.”
The acronym NFT stands for “nonfungible token.” An NFT is a digital-only item, taking the form of anything from original art to a clip of a sports highlight. The band Kings of Leon recently released an album as an NFT. An NFT from the digital artist Beeple was recently auctioned by Christie’s for $69.3 million.
These purchases were all made with cryptocurrency and verified on the blockchain, a shared public ledger. The buyer of an NFT is not purchasing a physical item, or even necessarily a one-of-a-kind item. They are essentially buying a certificate of authenticity that their copy of that item is the NFT.
The market for NFTs has become hot enough to raise concerns that it is a bubble. It is tied to the value of cryptocurrency, which can be volatile. And it has already been subject to parody, notably when a Brooklyn artist began selling recordings of his farts as NFTs; the bidding for these reached several hundred dollars per fart.
But in sports, the market for NFTs is free from concerns about the commodification of art, and is quickly growing. The NBA launched Top Shot last year, a partnership with Digital Labs, a company previously best known for selling digital cats as NFTs. Consumers can purchase anything from photos of players to video clips of highlights. A LeBron James dunk sold as an NFT for more than $200,000.
Not every NFT on Top Shot is prohibitively expensive. If the trend holds, a generation of digital natives could come to regard sports NFTs as every bit as tangible as trading cards or posters feel to their parents.
Major League Baseball is close to finalizing an NBA-type move into NFTs. For now, it’s up to players to pursue their own ideas. For Walker, the notion that an athlete could design his memorabilia and sell it privately was intriguing on a creative level. He is also interested in NFTs and cryptocurrency as investment and philanthropy opportunities.
Walker got into cryptocurrency about a year ago through Jarrett Burgess, his best friend and a former teammate in the Seattle Mariners organization.
“He’s been learning about it for years,” Walker says. “Last year, I started getting into it a little bit, not paying too much attention. Then four or five months ago I thought, ‘Okay, I’m just going to dive into it, see what we’ve got.’ If I have any questions I just hop on the phone with him. Obviously, I’ve been doing my own research. It’s cool. It’s fascinating and it’s different.”
Walker and Burgess are assembling a small team to further explore the crypto and NFT worlds. They began with the history-making auction last week, which featured a relatively straightforward baseball card. In the future, he wants to create more complex designs.
“I like art,” he says. “We did something quick and simple [this time]. It was a picture of me throwing a bullpen. We just wanted something colorful, vibrant, cool colors -- something to put out there real quick. But moving forward we’re building a sick team to help me with NFTs. My best friend, Burgess, is artistic, and he’s going to be helping with the NFTs. It’s going to be a lot different stuff.
“Whether it be a pair of cleats I wear, a baseball, a jersey, there are so many different opportunities for NFTs. That’s why I like it. That's why it’s cool. It’s my own art that I make, that I own. I can make it anything I want: Drawings, music, live video of me throwing my first pitch as a Met. That’s why it’s so exciting, and so cool -- the sky's the limit with it.”
For last week’s auction, Walker decided to partner with the Amazin’ Mets Foundation, which is run by part-owner Alex Cohen. The auction raised $4,275.
“I had nothing but positive feedback from the Mets,” Walker says. “They were so supportive. It was, ‘Whatever you need, let us know.’ It could have gone one of two ways. It could have been, ‘Hey, take that down.’
“It’s another source of income for me, and that's cool, but it can also be attached to any foundation. If something bad happens like a natural disaster, you can sell an NFT and all the proceeds go to that. It’s something that can help raise money. You can really do anything with it.”
Perhaps the NFT space can also help baseball with its evergreen project of marketing its athletes to younger fans born and raised in a digital world. Walker’s teammate Trevor May, for example, is better known in some circles as a star on the live streaming gaming platform Twitch than for his excellent work with the Minnesota Twins.
“Those guys who are into video games, those are the type of guys I can see making NFTs, too,” says Walker, who emphasized that his own primary focus remained on baseball.
“It’s something that an athlete can do on his own. If you’re into crypto and you’re into NFTs and you have your own team, you can do it whenever you want. You can put out as many NFTS as you want. There is no limit to it.”